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March 11, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - For Bernard James, the wait has been worth it.
A junior forward for Florida State, James won't get his first taste of the ACC Tournament until after 9 p.m. Friday. The Seminoles will be the last ACC team to play and seven teams will have already been eliminated by the time they take the court against Virginia Tech.
James doesn't care. The fact that he's here at all is remarkable. He's a high school dropout who served six years in the Air Force, including three tours in the Middle East. Now 26 years old, he's just at the beginning of his basketball career, living a dream he never expected.
A KNUCKLEHEAD LEARNS DISCIPLINE, INTEGRITY
After Wednesday's shoot-around in the Greensboro Coliseum, James was approached by a TV crew that requested an interview because "you're kind of the old man on this team."
The players in the Florida State locker room erupted in howls of laughter that didn't subside for a full minute.
"What a way to start a conversation," one said, still cracking up.
James just smiled, his 6-foot-10 frame sitting in a chair, and politely answered all the TV crew's questions.
"They give me a hard time like they are now," he said of his rowdy teammates, "but I take it all in stride."
His teammates range from 18 to 21 years old and have been playing basketball most of their lives. When James was their age, basketball was the farthest thing from his mind.
He describes himself as being a "knucklehead" in his youth, growing up in Savannah, Ga. It led to several bad decisions, getting into trouble and eventually dropping out of school.
"I was a little know-it-all kid, thinking I knew everything." James said. "I didn't really want to listen to anybody, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and I didn't really understand how life works.
"Sometimes you've got to do things that you don't want to do to get what you want. I didn't really get that concept when I was younger and it started me down the wrong path."
Eventually James began to realize that he didn't want his life to drift aimlessly. With urging from his parents, he got his GED and, at age 17, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. The military way of life turned out to be exactly what he needed.
"It gave me discipline, integrity and taught me to think about the big picture and to think about others and how my actions affect them," he explained.
He was 6-5 and had never played organized basketball but early in his service a supervisor looked at his frame and told him he would become a player. Over the years, while he played on bases and for service all-star teams, James grew five inches and began to attract some attention from colleges.
But his service obligation came first. He played when he could, but finding time for basketball in the desert of Iraq wasn't easy.
"It was rough, man," he said. "Blistering heat and just being over there for an undetermined amount of time. They'll say six months but you end up staying for 10, 11. I'm not really complaining but it's rough not really knowing.
"Just being over there with the people that you come to love, the people that you work with, makes everything a lot easier."
James rose to the rank of staff sergeant and was working at a detention facility in Iraq called Camp Bucca when he faced his most dangerous moments.
"A mortar landed about 15 meters away from me," he said, his voice matter-of-fact. "It didn't injure me, it just knocked me off my feet and my ears were ringing for a few days."
No U.S. or coalition forces were hurt but six detainees were killed and 67 more injured. The moments after the attack were the most hectic.
"After (the attack), it was just chaos," he said. "Detainees had been hit and we were just trying to get medical in and figure everything out. It was crazy."
"I NEED YOU TO YELL AT ME A LITTLE MORE"
After James was discharged upon completing his service, he began to consider his future again. He wanted an education and basketball could help him get one.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton was among many coaches aware of him. With no basketball experience other than service ball and only a GED, James knew he had to bolster those areas. He enrolled at Tallahassee Community College and in two years averaged 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds and earned a 3.0 GPA. Then he signed at Florida State.
The Seminole coaches knew early on they had an unusual player on their hands. During preseason individual workouts, which are designed more for teaching than intensity, James made an unusual request of assistant Stan Jones, who works with the big men.
"He comes over and says `coach, I need you to yell at me a little more,'" Jones recalled. "I asked him to repeat it, he said `coach, that's the way I learned when I went into boot camp, I had this drill sergeant and he was yelling at me and demanding of me.'
"And I said `well, that's coming, you don't have to worry about it. I'll try to pick it up a little bit today if it helps you.'"
In 30 years of coaching, Jones had never heard a player asked to be yelled at.
James appreciates what Jones has done for him.
"Every day he's on me, he's on me, he never lets up, just pushing me, trying to make me better," James said. "The things he tells me - little things about how to post up, how to get to where you want on the court. I've taken that all in and it's helped me. You can see it in my stats throughout the season."
James is averaging 8.3 points and 5.6 rebounds and has consistently improved his game. In ACC competition, he averages 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds. And he's still learning.
"You have to understand that Bernard has not played very much basketball," Hamilton said. "So he's going through a learning process and the curve has been pretty tough for him.
"He's just now coming around to where he's adjusting to this style of ball at this level and the intensity we're playing with and the things that we're asking him to be consistently doing. For him it's not quite as easy as for guys who have played consistently for their whole life. So we're patient with him and we're allowing him to grow at the rate he can absorb things."
For his part, James believes he's still a work in progress but he sees improvement.
"I feel like I've come a long way," he said. "At the beginning of the season I didn't know much about especially this level of basketball, where everybody is so talented. With my late start in basketball and a little bit of a lack of coaching throughout the process of getting here, I am lacking in the skill department. But I make up for it with athleticism and heart."
Jones said he's extremely proud of how far James has come and Jones believes he has just tapped his potential.
"There's no question that next year when we start he can be a guy that's on the top of a lot of scouting reports for a lot of teams," Jones said. "I think he can be a dominant factor for us and a guy who can contribute to our highest level of success we can get to.
"Whether the NBA is an option, I don't know. He never really thought about that until recently, he never realized he had that kind of ability until he started to grow and started to produce in big environments."
A LEVEL OF MATURITY THAT SETS AN EXAMPLE
After surviving experiences such as his wasted youth and a mortar attack, will a little thing like the ACC Tournament cause James to be nervous?
"I wouldn't say nervous," he said. "I've been put on edge a bit this season, but nothing that's really made me nervous. The coaches are helping me along the way, trying to guide me, help me figure things out and master this game."
Hamilton said that while James is not fearful of anything, the new experiences have caused occasional anxiety. Experiences like playing against Florida and Ohio State in packed houses on national TV against the kind of talented competition he never encountered before. The coach took him out in certain situations to calm James' excitement and assure him he was as talented as anyone on the court.
"I think he's at the point now where he's a cool customer," Hamilton said. "I think he's past that stage that he went through early in the year, going into places and looking around and saying `wow, this is what I want, but I'm (really) here.' I think now he's part of the excitement."
As good as he is becoming in basketball, James is just as valuable in what he brings to the team in another way - a level of maturity that his teammates respect.
"He's a guy who wants to blend in and not be singled out," Hamilton said. "But when he needs to speak up, he does.
"When someone maybe is having one of their 19- or 20-year-old moments, he exercises his maturity and puts his arm around them and speaks to them in his own way. I'm proud of him because he has had to make as much or more adjustments, in a different kid of way, than just about anybody in the ACC."
Jones said James never shows any negativity, reacting to criticism by looking the coaches right in the eye and accepting their authority. He sets an example of how to behave on and off the court.
"They see me as a big brother," James said of his teammates. "A lot of the guys will come to me with questions, more so outside of basketball. When they have problems they'll come to me and ask me what I think. If they need to fix something they'll ask me how to get it done. On the basketball court I think I fit in just like one of the guys."
It was a long road to this point for Bernard James and it's not over, either on the basketball court or off.
"I think I'll be happy when I finish (college) and get my bachelor's degree," he said. "That will be a big stepping stone to kind of erase the mistakes I've made in my past."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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